Listening to Our Audience

I’m really glad that my first experience at the International Spy Museum happened during a trip when I was mindful of looking for the ways in which storytelling is presented. I was able to pick out the smaller stories that combine to make the larger narrative and themes of the museum. I could see why designers chose the stories that they did, which ones worked, and which didn’t. The best part of our visit today, for me, was that the specialists at the Spy Museum were aware of what worked and what didn’t, so much so that they could anticipate our problems and praise. This is because of the systems of visitor feedback and evaluation that they have used over the years to gauge visitor response. 

What worked for me: the hidden entrance to a prison

I was glad to hear that they use a variety of methods of evaluation at the Spy Museum, including comment cards and Trip Advisor, where they respond to visitor comments. I do believe that it’s important to not only listen to what your audience says, but to let them know that you’re listening and taking their concerns to heart. As a result of the museum doing this, they are able to better design their new building to suit visitor needs. 

As I work directly with the visitor experience, I can say that I get feedback quite regularly. I always do what I can to make sure that visitors know that I care about what they have to say, and that I will make sure their comments get back to the right people. 

What didn’t work for me: the Rosetta Stone. In a spy museum?

I think my biggest take away from today’s presentation at the Spy Museum will be that accountability in evaluation matters. We always say that we want to be having a conversation with our visitors, and as a result, we have to make sure that means we are taking the good with the bad. Concerns should never fall on deaf ears, even if it’s something that hurts our pride as museum professionals. Like I always say, nothing that we do matters if our visitors stop coming through the doors, and evaluation can help to ensure that they keep coming back. 

What’s The Big Idea?

I am always floored by what the National Museum of Natural History has to offer me as a visitor, but this is the first time I’ve been back since starting the program at JHU and I have to say that I was even more blown away by how the museum is set up to ensure that visitors comprehend the big idea of the exhibitions. The most interesting part of the tour, in my opinion, was hearing the thought processes behind certain decisions that were made by the curators and the exhibition specialists in creating the educational spaces in the museum.

The “big ideas” from the ocean exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History

Hans Sues’s enthusiasm for science and museums was not only noticeable, but infectious as he described what the institution hoped for the visitor to be able to walk away with at the end of their visit. I was so excited that he mentioned some of the places where modern museums trace their roots, for example, wunderkammers and P.T. Barnum. I was able to see those influences right away. 
I was also excited to see that the Museum of Natural History deals with many of the themes we’ve been discussing, particularly that of tackling difficult conversations, such as evolution. As with Mount Vernon, this institution wants visitors to be exposed to the truth, but they have done so in a considerate way, relying on science, but also reaching out to spiritual leaders around the world. 

I enjoyed the way this trip built upon my experience at Mount Vernon. Yesterday, my take away was that truthful and accurate interpretation is critical. Today, I would like to expand on that. As Sues illustrated, the “big idea” should be clear to visitors, and as he demonstrated, enthusiastic interpretation can engage even the most exhausted of visitors. 

We Can’t All Have Pandas

Today was an interesting dichotomy for me as visiting the National Zoo is always fascinating, but completely out of my wheelhouse. Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens, however, shares many characteristics of the museum that I currently work at: a historic home, a museum, gardens, and the memory of a local celebrity.

I was completely floored by the way the exhibit specialists at the zoo related their daily activities in such a way that it applied to all of us, regardless of the type of museum that we work in. I was particularly interested in the difference between story-based approaches and object-based approaches to interpretation. The example of the panda house stands out in my mind as an effective example of blending the two. 

At Hillwood, we had a chance to explore as visitors before being taught about the thought and efforts that go into exhibit design and interpretation. While the historic home and collection were impressive, it just reinforced what I mentioned earlier in the day: that I prefer a storytelling approach. That being said, the printed program and the audio tour do allow the visitor to experience that and they are wonderful resources. 

Visiting the exhibition in the Dacha was one of my favorite moments of the day. I think this is where things started to click for me. The miniature watercolors and the accompanying labels created a fantastic exhibit experience. I was fascinated and I am very much hoping to get another chance to really explore the exhibit. 

So, while I still like to think of myself as a storyteller, I walk away from today believing that some combination of objects and stories is probably the best path to a creating a rich visitor experience. Also, having pandas never hurts. 

To Boldly Go…

I was already excited that our third day in Washington was going to be spent at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian, but both institutions completely blew me away with their thoughtful design, amazing collections, and engaging programs. While it was easy to be swept up in the incredible visual experience of the museums, it was even more special to gain insights into what makes them iconic destinations that are so easily recognizable. 

In speaking with two museum educators and two museum media specialists today, I was able to get a better understanding of how the two departments work together to create an experience that goes far beyond the walls of the institution. Museum presence on the Web or on mobile technology can be so vital to teachers, and that point will really stick with me as it is sometimes discouraging when we don’t see immediate returns on the work we’re doing. If it’s out there and accessible, it is likely making a difference. 

Another key take away of mine from today’s visits is that we don’t have to try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to creating programming. Ann Caspari (NASM) explained some of her educational programming techniques in which she uses PowerPoint presentations to enhance story time activities for children. I love this idea and I think something like this would be a good fit at my museum, where we do occasionally host story time for various age groups. 

I genuinely had a fantastic experience getting to see the processes used by professionals in two of my favorite institutions, one that will resonate with me for a long time to come. 

On a museum geek (and just geek in general) note, seeing the USS Enterprise on display at the NASM is literally one of the highlights of my life. 

Building A Narrative 

Our second day in Washington, DC centered around the art of storytelling. We all encounter stories every day, whether they are in the books we read, movies we watch, or narratives we follow on social media. Taking large, complex ideas, breaking them down, and synthesizing them into new non-fiction narratives requires every bit of imagination that we might expect of creative writing. 

In his workshop on storytelling, Tim Wendel showed us how writers use scenes and summaries to keep the reader’s attention. Judy Landau taught us the fundamentals of object-based learning and how to find the “big idea.” I was able to pull from both of these presenters today while completing an assignment at the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery. 

We were told to choose a portrait that spoke to us before partnering up with a classmate to create a story combining both of our historical figures. I chose scientist Albert Einstein and my partner chose opera singer Denyce Graves. We were able to draw up the lessons from the earlier workshops to help us to connect these two figures not only from different disciplines, but from different time periods. As a museum professional, my take away from today will be the incredible importance of a cohesive and easy to follow narrative. 

Albert Einstein at the SAAM/NPG

It was interesting to see how my partner and I were able to work together to help each other to understand the indvidual vision that we had for our story . This was a bit of a challenge at first, but with a little time, we were able to come up with a linear narrative. This assignment was great practice for pulling together our final group project!

Denyce Graves at the SAAM/NPG

Empathy & Museums

My immediate impression after the first full day of the Washington, DC seminar is that this will be a time that is going to challenge me physically and emotionally. While touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH), I was overcome with emotion reading stories and hearing voices that are, in many ways, so far removed from what I am accustomed to. I have had many history lessons about the African American experience, but I have never had such an eye-opening experience in my life. 

In listening to Gretchen Jennings talk about the Empathetic Museum, I believe that rush of emotion that I felt was a thoughtful and intentional move on NMAAHC’s part. As a naturally empathetic person, I absolutely appreciate this effort. As a museum professional, I would love to be able to sharpen my skills at creating empathy in others. I believe that following the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model and looking at NMAACH for inspiration are fantastic ways to start. There are quite a few things that I will be taking away with me from both today’s museum trip and the lecture, including a reminder to myself to be more aware of the sometimes sensitive nature of interpretation, but also an important lesson in how powerful that interpretation can be, even with difficult subjects. Objects, like the wreckage of slave ships (pictured above), are so much more engaging when they are accompanied by the words of a person who experienced these events. While we may certainly intend to take away an educational experience when we leave museums, I believe that a lesson here is that emotions can be used to intensify that experience, hopefully leaving a lifelong impression.